The “Uninteresting” Plight of Afghanistan

It is ironic that some of the same people who call for moderation in dealing with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, had little or nothing to say in the 1980s when the former Soviet Union was waging a terrible war there. There was little interest in the well-being of the average Afghan then. There still exists a double standard among liberal churchpeople that the United States can do little right, while those in opposition to the United States can do no wrong. It is amazing to see the contortions of those who defend the extremely intolerant Taliban regime, and attack those of us who reflect a conservative Biblical viewpoint within the Church. 

Web Editor


September/October, 1985
Volume 20, Number 5

The primary task of the church is to present Jesus Christ so that by the power of the Holy Spirit men and women will put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour from the guilt and power of sin – to serve Him in the fellowship of the church, and to follow Him in the vocations of the common life. It is not our corporate duty to seek to mold and influence politics. One cannot help wondering whether the church today is a religious organization minoring in politics, or whether it is a political organization minoring in religion. To read the materials pouring from denominational headquarters, lets one under the impression that either of the foregoing statements could be true. But anyhow, if we must be “prophetic” and speak to the political issues that abound, and express concern about how political and economic change can help the poor and the oppressed of earth -we should at least be consistent – and voice outrage over the injustices which are being perpetrated against the “uninteresting” poor, as well as those who are impoverished in South Africa and in Central America.

It will interest many of you to note that (as pointed out later from the writings of Jacques Ellul), there are groups of mistreated people in various nations that do not receive much attention from the religious activists. There are multitudes of people in Iraq and South Vietnam and Uganda and Afghanistan, for example, who are being massacred and oppressed and obliterated every day – but these are the “uninteresting” poor and thus the harsh attacks and bloody campaigns of terror being leveled against them (mostly by Marxists) do not receive strong condemnation from liberal churchmen in America.

The only recent reference to Afghanistan in Brethren literature (that we can remember) was a brief statement in a Church of the Brethren General Board Resolution passed at the October, 1984 General Board meeting. In a decision called IN THIS TIME OF TERRIBLE BELLIGERENCE, there is a biting denouncement of United States’ intervention in the Middle East and in Central America, claiming that “our nation is the most threateningly belligerent (nation) on earth.” A concluding section of the same paper calls us to prayer for various peoples of earth. For example: “We pray for the people of Nicaragua. May they know an end to the ravages of war by mercenaries funded and directed by the Central Intelligence Agency, and by private interests in the United States.” And then there is a statement: “We pray for the people of Afghanistan. May they be free of occupation by a foreign power.” Nothing is said about the bombing of villages and the widespread Soviet campaign of savagery against innocent people in Afghanistan. (We must keep in mind that the prophets in Israel not only denounced injustice in their own nation; they also spoke severely and specifically of God’s judgment upon Edom and Phoenecia and Syria and Egypt, etc. For an example, see chapters 46 through 51 in the Book of Jeremiah).

The activist “prophets” who have been so quick to condemn their own country, and rant and rave against the evils of American life – and roundly condemn support for the repressive regimes in Latin America -are strangely silent about the shooting of civilians and burning of crops by the Soviets in Afghanistan. Why not 11 aid the cause of freedom” by demonstrating in front of the Soviet embassy in our nation’s capital? Why should all the attention be given to South Africa and Latin America? Why not occasionally portray nations other than the United States as chief threats to world peace?

The perceptive article which follows will help answer those questions for the reader. It is related to one’s views about communism and capitalism.

–H. S. M.

The “Uninteresting” Plight of Afghanistan

By James V. Heidinger II

Afghanistan is one of the world’s least developed countries. It is a little smaller than Texas, and is bordered by Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran. Ninety-nine percent of its 16 million people are Muslims. Only ten percent of the population can read or write. Afghanistan is a dying nation, and few seem to care.

The lead editorial in the New York TimesSunday, December 30, 1984entitled “Requiem for a Nation,” called the Soviets’ war against the Afghan resistance fighters “a war that threatens a nation with extinction.”

Over five years ago the Soviet Union swept into Afghanistan for a supposed “limited and temporary” intervention. Today they still are fighting a brutal and indiscriminate war against Afghan freedom fighters and defenseless civilians. They are fighting to help prop up the government of their handpicked president, Babrak Karmal. He was installed in a coup which coincided with the arrival of over 90,000 Soviet troops during the last week of 1979.In addition, several thousand Soviet civilian advisors help supervise the puppet regime.

But because Afghanistan is closed to most Western news media, the rest of the world knows little about what is happening there. The few remaining Western embassies in the capital of Kabul have little contact with Afghans. Diplomats there are never permitted to travel throughout the country, and are restricted to only certain sections of Kabul.

The appalling story, however, is finally getting out. The New York Times reporter, William Borders, recently spent two weeks along the Afghan frontier in Pakistan. He heard the same gruesome stories from refugees that he did from European physicians working in the refugee camps along the border. “When an Afghan woman tells you she left home because Russian soldiers killed almost everyone in her village, including her children, you wonder” – a doctor told Borders. “But over the months, when two dozen more Afghan women from various parts of the country come with exactly the same story, it begins to seem inescapably true.”

Borders’ account is corroborated by a report in early January of 1985 from Helsinki Watch, the organization that monitors the Helsinki accords. After conducting scores of interviews along the Afghan/Pakistan border, the author of the report said, “It soon became clear that just about every conceivable human rights violation is occurring, and on an enormous scale.”

The authors talked with an Afghan doctor who had lost 42 members of his family and had just learned that two more had recently been burned alive. The report also tells of the fate of two brothers, in their nineties, both blind, who remained in their village when everyone else fled during a Soviet attack last year. The Russians tied dynamite to their backs and blew them up.

Between four and five million Afghans are now refugees in Pakistan and Iran. This is more than onefourth of the entire Afghan population. They have fled ‘ the report says, because “the crimes of indiscriminate warfare are combined with the worst excesses of unbridled state-sanctioned violence against civilians.” Hundreds of thousands more are refugees within their own country, having been forced to leave the countryside to move to the large cities for safety.

The Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion is made up of tough, determined tribesmen who call themselves “mujahedeen,” or “holy warriors.” They fight bravely with light and often primitive weapons against the heavily-armed, 115,000-manstrong Soviet occupation troops. But while the Afghan tribesmen can fight and then retreat into the mountains for safety, civilians in the rural villages become the target for the wrath of the Soviet troops. The Helsinki Watch authors collected abundant evidence of “civilians burned alive, dynamited, beheaded; bound men forced to lie down on the road to be crushed by Soviet tanks; grenades thrown into rooms where women and children have been told to wait. From throughout the country come tales of death on every scale of horror, from thousands of civilians buried in the rubble left by fleets of bombers to a young boy’s throat being dispassionately slit by a Soviet soldier.”

As if this were not enough, the occupation army has stepped up the war with a new strategy. The Times editorial charges: “The overwhelming evidence is that in 1984 the Soviet occupiers widened the war to destroy food production in rebel-held areas.” A major fear of relief workers this past winter, was the imminent possibility of malnutrition or even starvation in Afghanistan because of loss of crops, the migration of people from the rural areas to the cities, and the heavy bombing that has damaged irrigation systems.

All of the appalling accounts reported by Helsinki Watch are violations of the Geneva conventions to which the Soviets have supposedly subscribed. But it appears not to matter. The Soviet Union seems to be getting away with it all. It rotates its army regularly, bringing in fresh troops. Of course, their government gets no dissent at home and there has been little noticeable protest abroad. The United Nations has expressed only token censure.

One of the baffling aspects of this five-year-old war has been the silence of the various Christian churches. United Methodists did pass a resolution at the 1980 General Conference objecting to Russia’s intervention and condemning their use of aggressive force. But our hearts were really not in it then, and not much has been said since. The 1984 General Conference did not address the matter at all. (Note: See the editorial for a reference to the Church of the Brethren statement about the war in Afghanistan).

The lack of protest over the rape of Afghanistan illustrates the validity of Jacques Ellul’s distinction, which he makes in his book, Violence, between the “interesting” and the “uninteresting” poor.

Theirs (the Christian activists) is a selective attitude . . . There are the “interesting” poor – the Negroes in the U.S.A. and South Africa, the North Vietnamese, the Vietcong, the Palestinian Arabs, the poor in Latin America. And then, there are the ;,uninteresting” poor -people who obvious- are not worth troubling about: The Biafrans who were massacred by the federal troops of Nigeria; the monarchist Yemenites who were burned by napalm and bombed into obliteration by the Egyptian Air Force from 1964 to 1967; the South Sudanese who were destroyed in masses by the North Sudanese; the Tibetans who were oppressed and deported by China; the Khurds, perhaps 500,000 of whom were massacred in Iraq and and Iran between 1955 and today . . . Are they less poor than the others? They are much poorer, because no one is concerned for them. Why then are they ignored? Alas, the reason is very simple. The interesting poor are those whose defense is in reality an attack against Europe, against capitalism, against the U.S.A.. The uninteresting poor represent forces that are considered passe. Their struggle concerns themselves alone. They are fighting not to destroy a capitalist or colonialist regime, but simply to survive as individuals, as a culture, a people. And that, of course, is not at all interesting, is it? (From Jacques Ellul, Violence, The Seabury Press, 1969).

Since Ellul wrote those words, one could add to the list of “uninteresting” poor – the peoples of South Vietnam, Kampuchea, Uganda, and Afghanistan. Public expressions of outrage from United Methodists should be voiced, whether such protests are in agreement or disagreement with the position of the U.S. State Department. If we say nothing the stones will cry out. In fact, the validity of our consistent claims of concern for the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed – is, to be quite frank, on the line in our response to Afghanistan.

The preceding article is adapted from an editorial written by James V. Heidinger, who serves as editor of GOOD NEWS, a periodical which calls for “Scriptural Christianity within the United Methodist Church.” The material appeared in the March/April, 1985 issue of GOOD NEWS.

What Happens When Suppressed Peoples Are Liberated?

By Harold S. Martin

The modern “prophets” and the liberation theologians express concern for the poor and the suppressed people of earth, and their proposed solution often leads them to support political regimes which have not, in fact, been able to help the poor. Yet these newly established anticapitalist societies are frequently held up as examples of what liberation accomplishes for various nations.

For example, leading churchmen rejoiced in the fall of the Ian Smith rule in Rhodesia (which is now called Zimbabwe), but they have never admitted that after Smith’s fall – terrible, terrible things have happened in that African country. One doesn’t hear the “prophets” (who formerly rejoiced) now admitting that they may have been wrong.

The Church of the Brethren Messenger reported a World Council of Churches PCR grant to the Rhodesian rebels (The Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe) in the November, 1978 issue. Messenger said that the grant was given “for foodhealth, social and educational and agricultural programs” for Zimbabweans working in the two wings of the freedom fighters’ organization known as the Patriotic Front -headed on the one hand by Robert Mugabe and on the other by Joshua Nkomo. Ian Smith (then the white prime minister) was called “an illegal white minority regime” and the freedom fighters (under Mugabe and Nkomo) were the real hope for great things in Zimbabwe!

In 1980, Rhodesia became a black-ruled nation and Marxist Robert Mugabe became the new Prime Minister. But within a few years things already began to turn sour:

Time (January 17, 1983): “On New Year’s eve, six people, all but one of them white, were killed in a spree of violence near Zimbabwe’s second largest city. In an especially gruesome incident, the throat of a 71-year-old farmer was slit ear to ear. Only days earlier, a pack of armed men wearing green camouflage uniforms … sprayed buses and cars with gunfire . . . The latest streak of violence is a sign that the coalition which turned white-ruled Rhodesia into black-governed Zimbabwe in 1980 is crumbling.”

Newsweek (February 21, 1983): “in Zimbabwe, troops bayoneted to death a pregnant woman; at a rural school, government forces chopped off the hands of two little girls; in a tribal reserve, soldiers rounded up 53 young men and executed them. Throughout Zimbabwe, soldiers have forced thousands of black civilians to flee their homes for the provincial capital where they tell tales of murder, rape, and torture … Government troops have killed an estimated 500 people in the past three weeks alone.”

U. S. News & W R. (April 25, 1983): “Zimbabwe … faces tribal warfare, political repression, and a worsening economy. Just over a year ago . . . Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, a Roman Catholic-educated Marxist, was being praised for his moderation. Now, large areas of the nation are as unsafe as they were during the seven-year war when the former British colony was known as Rhodesia and blacks were fighting the white minority government of Prime Minister Ian Smith.”

Political strife, physical brutality, and difficult economic times have only grown worse in Zimbabwe during the past 24 months (see TimeApril 30, 1984 and March 18, 1985).

The overwhelming majority of African states have had a disgraceful record on human rights and balanced justice. What has been happening in Black Africa is certainly not anything near like its people had hoped for during their struggles for independence. When will our church leaders learn that a mere change of human government, and setting people free from one governing authority to establish another political entity -is not in the end going to bring a lasting solution to any nation’s problems?

According to the liberation theologians (including liberal) Protestant church leaders and many Roman Catholic bishops), oppression is considered to be not having enough political freedom and having insufficient financial means. “Sin” is to have more money than someone else. “Evangelism” is the story to tell to the nations about liberation from capitalist oppression and the new freedom to be found under the socialist economic system. “Christ” is the liberator, and if he were here now, in some cases he would take up arms against the establishment, like he did against the money changers. “Salvation” is to be freed from present political enslavement and reestablished under the blessings of the socialist world revolution.

Make no mistake about it — genuine Christians are concerned about the heartbreaking needs of the many people who inhabit the earth. Pagan lands are an ocean of poverty, disease, and death which should move every believer to tears — and to action. The Christian however understands that the real problem of the world is that human beings are under the tight grip of sin. He knows too that as long as persons continue in unrepented sin, all forms of human aid and political reform only bring temporary relief. The purpose of the church is to use human help to bring persons to the place where they see their spiritual needs and trust Jesus Christ as Saviour. Societies will change only as its people are changed. We cannot change the social order by changing its structures without changing its individual persons.